UN officials hail entry into force of ‘milestone’ accord on child soldiers

UN officials hail entry into force of ‘milestone’ accord on child soldiers

Olara Otunnu
The entry into force of a new international legal instrument banning the use of children as soldiers was hailed as a milestone today by two senior United Nations officials concerned with children’s rights -- Olara Otunnu, Secretary-General Kofi Annan’s Special Representative for Children and Armed Conflict, and Carol Bellamy, the Executive Director of the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF).

The entry into force of a new international legal instrument banning the use of children as soldiers was hailed as a milestone today by two senior United Nations officials concerned with children’s rights -- Olara Otunnu, Secretary-General Kofi Annan’s Special Representative for Children and Armed Conflict, and Carol Bellamy, the Executive Director of the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF).

The Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child on the Involvement of Children in Armed Conflict, which today became law, prohibits States parties from sending children under the age of 18 into combat, and from recruiting children under the age of 16 into armed forces.

“This marks a new and much higher threshold for the protection of children in situations of conflict,” Mr. Otunnu told a news conference at UN Headquarters in New York. “It provides us with the opportunity to monitor much more effectively and report on the conduct of parties to conflict relative to the recruitment and use of children in conflict.”

He appealed to all countries to mobilize their influence to end the recruitment and use of children in war. “We must use the tools of naming and shaming, of isolation, of denial of legitimacy,” he said.

The UN estimates that over 300,000 boys and girls are serving in government or rebel forces in over 30 armed conflicts in the world – as soldiers, runners guards, sex slaves, cooks or spies. Frequently abducted from their homes, schools, or refugee camps and forced into combat, these children are beaten or killed if they attempt to escape. Girls are especially vulnerable, because they are often sexually exploited.

“The universal ratification and implementation of the Protocol should remain a pressing priority for the international community,” said UNICEF Executive Director Carol Bellamy. Children, she said, belonged in schools and with their families. “This is their right,” she said, adding, “It is our responsibility to ensure that they are protected from the horrors of warfare.”

For her part, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Mary Robinson called on States not only to ratify the treaty, but to make binding declarations ending all forms of military recruitment and participation of children under 18 years of age.

"We are urging all governments and armed groups to end the military recruitment of children under 18 and to release and rehabilitate those children already in service", she said in a statement. "There can no longer be any excuses for using children for war".

Adopted by the General Assembly in May 2000, the Optional Protocol has been signed by 96 countries to date. It has 14 parties: Canada, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Andorra, Panama, Iceland, Viet Nam, Democratic Republic of the Congo, New Zealand, Monaco, Kenya, Czech Republic and Romania, as well as the Holy See.